Paul Kay: Syncopation in wood

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Paul Kay in his Sydney studio/workshop.

What happens when an engineering patternmaker uses wood as a medium for creating art? We asked Paul Kay how it came to be. Interview by Linda Nathan.

Paul Kay has been an engineering patternmaker for 50 years, as well as a model maker, furniture maker, miniature confectionery tooling sculptor and woodcarver. Recently however, Paul has created a body of work for his second exhibition, Rhythm and Hues – Syncopation in Wood, organised with art gallery director Frances Keevil.

During his patternmaking career, the range of forms Paul has made, mostly from dimensioned drawings in various drafted views, was stratospheric. Common in the mix were wooden patterns for the foundry industry, and industrial models for industrial designers. He made innumerable wooden master patterns for vacuum forming plastic sheet, as well as wooden and aluminium tooling used to produce sand casing blocks for the welding of train and crane rails. Wooden and epoxy resin master patterns were made for pantographing steel tooling, which in turn produced injection moulded plastic items. The reach of the patternmaker’s art was once enormous, however its praise has been largely unsung.


An in-progress view of Together (shown below). Depths are determined from a full scale sketch of the design transferred to the surface of a single piece of jelutong.


Together, 570 x 310 x 56mm, Malaysian jelutong, acrylic paints, clear polyurethane

Notably from 1985, Paul produced miniature master patterns for the confectionery industry worldwide, mainly for jellies, jubes and marshmallows, though rarely for chocolates. Once he even sculpted a range of dog biscuits that resembled dog characters!

‘The miniature confectionery tooling master sculptures have been and still are a very enjoyable part of my career’, said Paul. ‘When carving tiny details into the confectionery master pattern I use very small chisels or gouges. Finishing is done with small riffler files and abrasive papers. I carve into Plastibond filler bonded onto a harder polyurethane base. Moulding tapers ensure that the shape will effectively extract during the moulding process. It’s tough on chisel edges. I have made about 5000 different shapes over 37 years.’


‘Miniature confectionery tooling master sculptures have been, and still are, a very enjoyable part of my career.’

Paul’s father was also an engineering patternmaker and his grandfather was a carpenter. ‘There must be a bit of wood dust flowing in the blood’, he said. ‘My apprenticeship commenced in 1971 at Ultimo TAFE, Sydney, one day a week for three years, followed by another year in the workplace. Back then there were two classes of twelve apprentices each. Afterwards it was a long slow learning curve based on experience and making mistakes either dimensionally or with technique.’

Alongside his work, Paul’s interest in art developed as he worked on sculptures and attended life drawing classes. He enjoys visiting galleries and reading about art, and he is inspired by early to mid-20th century modernist painters like Ben Nicholson, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Picasso and Frank Hinder. He also cites influence from sculptors such as Archipenko, Calder, David Smith, Moore, Lipchitz and Hepworth, as well as those from ancient civilisations.


Using forstner bits to rough out the different levels of Community.


Community, 355 x 307 x 50mm, Malaysian jelutong, acrylic paints, sealed with clear polyurethane.

‘The shapes that I create derive from my studies in art, from my working background, from my interaction with friends and society, and from my observations in humanity’, said Paul. ‘Social media, fashion trends and the digital revolution are a constant influence in determining opinions.

The edges, surfaces and shadows reflect a conscious development in my designs. My colour palette is a melange of my personality, influences from reading art books, the response to personal emotional experiences and the humanity that one experiences in everyday life here and abroad.’


One of Paul Kay’s more figurative sculptures.

Paul’s artworks start as small sketches followed by full size dimensioned versions. The plywood radius templates he uses (from R25mm to R15,000 were handmade over decades of engineering patternmaking production.

For each sculpture, a timber block is prepared onto which the full size drawing is pencilled on the top surface. Wood grain direction is taken into account and depths are then determined.


Still, jelutong, acrylic paint. ‘Reductive techniques require conviction and thought, and the use of colour is essential for portraying emotions.’


Still, in-progress. Machining is done in stages on an end-milling machine using high speed steel cutters.

Machining is done in stages on an end-milling machine using high speed steel end-milling cutters and roughing out is done with forstner bits. Most curves are finished by hand using crank gouges, while tight internal vertical corners are finished
by hand with chisels. Abrasive papers produce the surface he requires. ‘It is a nerve-racking process, with decisions requiring conviction and thought. I prefer using a reductive technique commencing from the deepest level’, he explained.

Questioned on the use of colour, Paul commented: ‘There will be detractors and admirers of adding colour to timber but artists have done it historically. In my sculptural reliefs the masking-off process for each colour can be extremely time consuming, but the excitement of revealing their collaborated appearance in-situ can’t be underestimated. For me, the colours are essential in portraying an emotion onto the form’.

And the title? Was there a musical connection? ‘Artist and long-time friend Hadyn Wilson and I came up with it based upon a musical motif. Music is definitely a part of me. My father played piano in a small jazz group when he was young, and all genres of music interest me. It’s great for the soul.’

Rhythm and Hues – Syncopation in Wood showed at Studio W in Wooloomooloo, Sydney from June 1–19, 2022.

Learn more about Paul Kay at


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